Lee "Scratch" Perry: 20th Century Masters (The Millennium Collection)

Tim O'Neil

Lee 'Scratch' Perry

20th Century Masters (The Millennium Collection)

Label: The Millennium Collection
US Release Date: 2004-05-18
UK Release Date: Available as import

Dub reggae is heavy music, music with an irresistible gravitational pull. The rhythm section is more than just the genre's backbone, it's the undeniable pulsating heart and soul. The bass drum and bassline fuse into an implacably voracious whole, an impossibly attractive singularity that threatens to swallow everything else in it's immediate vicinity. The vocals, the small snare flourishes, the minimal guitar lines, they're all mere planetoids revolving around the massive gravity of the monstrous rumbling rhythm.

There is arguably no greater figure in the development of Jamaican music than Lee "Scratch" Perry. Even the indefatigably popular Bob Marley owes a percentage of his incredible success to Perry's production, on early Marley albums such as "African Herbsman." Amazingly, this rich compilation focuses merely on the period of 1976-77, following his signing to Island Records and the full establishment of the fertile Black Ark studio. After having helped to create both dub and ska during the early '70s, he entered a period of feverish creativity which preceded his eventual descent into vertiginous paranoia.

There are those who would turn their noses at the Millennium Collection series. While it is true that these discs represent probably the least subtle way for unscrupulous labels to repackage and strip-mine the discographies of classic groups who have no control over their back-catalogs, it is also true that the music speaks for itself. If you have even a passing interest in the history of dub reggae, you probably have most -- if not all -- of the tracks on this compilation. But I can think of many worse ways for a novice to be introduced to the world of Jamaican music than this bargain-priced collection.

The Millennium Collection format is actually pretty ingenious. By limiting every act to ten or twelve songs on a single, unadorned disc, the music can only stand or fall on it's own merits. Sometimes a Millennium Collection is the perfect format to experience more marginal acts, third-stringers such as Jet, Stephen Bishop or Klymaxx. Sometimes, as is the case with legends such as Louis Armstrong, James Brown or Mr. Perry himself, the idea of encapsulating an entire career, or even merely a small sliver of said career, onto one measly slab of plastic is comical. But, as the tip of an iceberg -- the sampler tray from an incomprehensibly dense menu -- it does a damn fine job.

Working with a number of groups, as well as with his own solo material, Perry succeeded in creating one of the most recognizably distinctive production styles of all time. On tracks like the Upsetters' "Dread Lion", Perry was able to infuse his music with an air of sinister inevitability, an almost primal dread communicated through the hazy, paranoid fog of cavernous reverb and echo. The process of learning to appreciate dub begins with understanding the tension and the anxiety at the center of what, on the surface, might appear to be very relaxed music. British punk has always been attracted to reggae and dub for one very simple reason: reggae and dub are as much a means of political expression for the economically repressed and politically impotent black Jamaicans as '70s punk was for the undernourished and marginalized white British underclass. Bob Marley isn't just the musical legend he is in America and Europe, in Jamaica he's a political hero: Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X and JFK rolled into one. When a track like "Dread Lion" conjures up images of the dark and dangerous African jungle, with a powerful dreadlocked figure ruling over the plains of ancestral Babylon, it's a call for political action.

Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves" (which the Clash covered on their classic debut), features Murvin's impossibly febrile falsetto over a deceptively placid rhythm. It's nothing less than a full-fledged call to revolution, a fact belied by its massive popularity on the British pop charts circa 1976. Max Romeo & The Upsetters' "War in a Babylon", one of the most famous reggae songs of all time, is equally contentious. Romeo's voice sounds bright and joyful, but there's no doubt that his words foreshadow inescapable conflict and conjure the inescapably powerful force of Biblical prophecy.

One of the more interesting artifacts for the casual reggae fan are Perry's own tracks, featuring the producer's own voice and a slightly more unhinged perspective than the relatively restrained tracks he produced for other groups. "Soul Fire" in particular foreshadow his later bouts of madness, the same madness that would eventually climax in the destruction of the Black Ark studios. It's a raw and vulnerable performance, and when he screams the words "Soul fire/ I ain't got no water", you feel the frenzied fingers of insanity clutching at the base of your own brain.

Brian Wilson wasn't the only studio visionary to be felled by his own prodigiously scarred psyche. But regardless of his eccentricities, Perry still remains a singular figure in the history of world music. For anyone with a serious interest in the appreciation of Jamaican music, I cannot imagine a more redundant collection -- but if you haven't yet made Mr. Perry's acquaintance, I can't think of a better place to start.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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